Based on the unsubtle trailer, I wasn’t expecting much when I took in Jon Favreau’s latest work as director, here also serving as writer and star, mostly due to the inevitable clichés I would have to digest along with the promised food porn. And it didn’t disappoint in this regard, Favreau’s schlubby chef, Carl, being ridiculously talented and his love interests played by the exuberant Sofia Vergara and the almost absurdly sensual Scarlett Johansson. And then there was Dustin Hoffman, spewing spittle all over the kitchen as his demanding boss. As expected, the story follows Carl who, after his kitchen creativity is stymied, walks out on the job and starts selling food from a truck on a road trip that gains fame on Twitter for his perfect Cuban sandwiches thanks to the internet savvy of his young son, Percy (an excellent Emjay Anthony).
If a lot of this sounds predictable, it is. But at a certain point the food took over, as it must in a satisfying food film, as well as the more interesting sub-plot of the relationship between the gruff, tough-love Carl and the yearning Percy, culminating in a surprisingly moving montage of one-second video clips from their road trip edited together by Percy into a short movie. Damn if that montage wasn’t moving and heartfelt and, quite literally, the stuff great film moments are made of. In fact, that little montage took me back to a month earlier when I had re-visited Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece City Lights (1931). With all due respect to Mr. Favreau, I am not comparing the director of Elf and Iron Man to the director of The Gold Rush and Modern Times. But the sweet montage that Favreau caps his film with taps into the same reservoir of feeling, the same swelling in one’s heart that should and must occur during the final scene in City Lights, when the formerly blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) suddenly realizes that it was the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) who was her benefactor only after she feels his hands and touches his face.
He looks at her shyly and filled with love. “Now you can see?” She gazes back at him in wonder and with love, too, that starts to grow. “Yes, now I can see.” Seeing, of course, not only physically but also the truth, realizing how wrong she was to judge him by his physical appearance. That City Lights fades out immediately makes the scene even more potent. What will happen to these two? There could have been a whole other film: Cut to one year later, the Tramp is working alongside his love in their flower shop, the Tramp mucking things up but everything coming out all right in the end.
With that one little flourish, Favreau takes us from light fare into a tender and sweet place, utilizing the visual as much as the aural. Of course, silent film works on a different level than conventional cinema and the great ones, including most of Chaplin’s, are filled with memorable moments, not just capped with them. But viewers wary of Chef’s premise may find themselves surprisingly satisfied with this light meal.
And if you haven’t seen City Lights (available from the public library and out in a new Blu-ray from Criterion), definitely give that a shot. For a silent film, it has an awful lot to say.